Nancy Pelosi Meets New Breed of Maker-Entrepreneurs at TechShop

1/22/14Follow @wroush

The new wave of maker spaces around the country, and the startups they’re spawning, could help keep more U.S. jobs from shifting overseas, in the view of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Entrepreneurs in San Francisco agree. But they want Pelosi’s help to make sure government regulations around issues like crowdfunding and veterans’ benefits don’t edge out startups and people retraining for high-tech careers.

“Andy Grove [the former CEO of Intel] had a cover story on Bloomberg a couple of years ago,” Pelosi told a group of entrepreneurs participating in a roundtable discussion at the San Francisco branch of TechShop, the membership-based chain of high-tech workshops. “He was not any kind of protectionist, but he wrote that America has to be on guard. Originally we would be inventing in the garage, and scaling up would happen in the U.S., and that would create jobs here, and then at some point, some of it would move offshore. Now people are going straight from garage to offshore, and that middle piece has been missing. I would love him to see what you all are doing in this regard.”

Pelosi, a Democrat whose district covers most of San Francisco, shared the remarks today as part a tour designed to highlight the emerging role of the maker movement in the high-tech economy. She watched equipment demonstrations—including a machine etching the TechShop logo onto squares of Ghirardelli chocolate—and met with entrepreneurs who’d used TechShop’s facilities to launch their businesses.

One of those was Craig Dalton of Dodocase, which sells hand-crafted iPad cases. “Access to the equipment we had within TechShop gave us the vision to say we can do small-scale production here, and keep the business in San Francisco,” Dalton told Pelosi. “And we can graduate from working at TechShop to owning our own facilities. We don’t need to offshore the product.”

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (center) flanked by TechShop CEO Mark Hatch and a group of TechShop alumni and members and local entrepreneurs.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (center) flanked by TechShop CEO Mark Hatch and a group of TechShop alumni and members and local entrepreneurs.

Pelosi also met Anton Willis of Oru Kayak. The startup’s sturdy plastic seacraft folds up, origami-style, into a compact box. The company set out to raise $80,000 on Kickstarter in late 2012, but ultimately collected $443,000, mostly from donors who used the site to pre-order their own kayaks, Willis said. That was “a huge boost, but then we had to make all of those,” he said. “We finally finished them a month ago.”

Pelosi praised TechShop and its entrepreneurial members for figure out how to narrow “the distance between idea and selling. That gap has always been the problem, unless you have very deep pockets.” By bringing together so many design, prototyping, and manufacturing tools under one roof, she observed, TechShop saves innovators enormous amounts of time and money. “I am totally in awe of what I have seen,” she said.

But the visit wasn’t all about mutual congratulations. Pelosi’s host and tour guide, TechShop CEO Mark Hatch, used the opportunity to make a few subtle points about the connection between Washington policymaking and small business.

“It’s critical that politicians understand the new ecosystems that are being created in their cities across the U.S.,” Hatch told me after the event. That way, “they can highlight them, but also take into consideration the laws and policies they’re making and what kind of impact that might have, and then to tweak some of those policies.”

Hatch says he’s particularly concerned about the Securities and Exchange Commission’s proposed rules for regulating equity-based crowdfunding under the JOBS Act. Many of the entrepreneurs tapped to speak at the roundtable, such as Willis and jewelry maker Laura Bruland of Yes & Yes Designs, had raised money for their projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. If the final SEC requirements around equity crowdfunding are too strict, it could cut off an important source of job creation, Hatch said.

“I think it’s important for policy makers to have an opportunity to interact with people whose lives have been changed beneficially because of the platforms that are out there, so they can bear that in mind as they’re weighing the risk-benefit around how onerous a policy they need to put in,” he said. “Don’t make the hurdles so high that a Laura Bruland can’t do a crowdfunding campaign and raise the $7,000 she needs for a laser cutter. That creates jobs.”

Hatch said TechShop could also use the Congresswoman’s help navigating the complex bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration. Under a pilot program funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, 350 veterans per year are learning machine-operating skills at TechShop’s Pittsburgh, PA, location. One group of recently laid-off millwrights, for example, were retrained to operate modern waterjet cutters. But normally, veterans wouldn’t be allowed to use their education benefits at TechShop, because the company doesn’t have the required accreditation.

“We could pursue the accreditation route, but it’s very expensive and time-consuming, with lots of management and so forth,” Hatch said. “So if there could be a way of adjusting the policy…we could literally have tens of thousands [of veterans] take advantage of this kind option. I think it would be a huge opportunity for veterans to pick up some quick skills that they might be able to use somewhere else.”

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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